Work of National Importance

Work of National Importance

Representation from the three historic peace churches on the National Service Board for Religious Objectors during World War II, From left to right: Robert (M.R.) Ziegler (Church of the Brethren), Orie O. Miller (Mennonite Church), Paul furnas (Friends), and Arthur Swift (from New York). IX-13-2-2 Box 1 Folder 2 photo 3, Mennonite Church USA Archives-Goshen. Goshen, Indiana


 Of 34,506,923 men who registered for the U.S. draft during World War II, a total of 72,354 applied for conscientious objector (CO) status.  Of those, 25,000 accepted noncombatant service in the army.  Another 27,000 failed to pass the basic physical health examination.  A total of 6,086 were imprisoned for their refusal to participate in any form of service, 4,441 of these being Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claimed ministerial exemption. 

A few less than 12,000 chose the only alternative service available: “work of national importance” under civilian direction--Civilian Public Service (CPS). Those choosing CPS were one-tenth of one percent of the12 million drafted into the military.  A ground swell of conscientious objectors from the peace movement of the 1930s failed to materialize.  This minority, the men of Civilian Public Service, took a stand against a popular war, later described as the “Good War.”

Fearing the approach of another war and remembering the failure of the U.S. government in World War I to provide alternative service for conscientious objectors, eighty leaders from the Historic Peace Churches (Brethren, Friends and Mennonites) met in Newton, Kansas in October 1935 and pledged to coordinate their preparation in case of war.

On September 16, 1940 President Roosevelt signed into law the Burke-Wadsworth bill calling for the first U.S. peace time conscription.  The CO Section 5(g) read:

Nothing contained in this Act shall be construed to require any person to be subject to combatant training and service in the land and naval forces of the United States who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.

Any such person claiming such exemption from combatant training and service because of such conscientious objections whose claim is sustained by the local draft board shall, if he is inducted into the land or naval forces under this Act, be assigned to noncombatant service as defined by the President, or shall, if he is found to be conscientiously opposed to participation in such noncombatant service, in lieu of such induction, be assigned to work of national importance under civilian direction.

General Hershey

General Lewis B. Hershey (1942), Director of Selective Service from 1941-1970. National Archives, U.S. Army Signal Corps

Prior to and following the passage of this bill, Historic Peace Church representatives negotiated vigorously on additional concerns, but with limited success.  What emerged in the President’s Executive Order of February 6, 1941 was a unique church-state partnership known as Civilian Public Service.  It began as a six-month experiment under a non-military Director of Selective Service, Clarence Dykstra.  A program under “civilian direction” was soon displaced by one under army officers: General Lewis Hershey and his deputy, Colonel Louis Kosch.  Civilian Public Service lasted through a year of uneasy peace, four years of total war and two years of demobilization. COs were conscripted into a program where they received no pay.  With the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war, COs and all conscripts were in service, not for a year, but “for the duration.”


A three-layered administrative structure appeared:  1. Selective Service, an agency which came under the direction of army officers; 2. the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (NSBRO), a majority of the members from the Peace Churches; 3. church operating agencies, principally the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Brethren Service Committee (BSC) and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).  Although the lines of authority were at times blurred, Deputy Director Colonel Kosch spoke for Selective Service: “The draft is under United States government operation. Conscientious objectors are draftees as soldiers are.  Their activities are responsible to the government.  The Peace Churches are only camp managers.” This uneasy church-state partnership, with its strains and flaws, survived for seven years.

Conscientious objectors encountered varied responses, many hostile, in seeking CO classification from local draft boards.  COs came from a wide range of religious and secular backgrounds: 225 denominations and positions, the largest groupings being Mennonite 4,665, Brethren 1,353, Friends 951, Methodist 673, non-affiliated 449, unclassified 709.  

The first CPS camp, administered by the Friends, opened at Patapsco State Park, near Baltimore on May 15, 1941.  A week later a Mennonite camp opened at Grottoes, Virginia and a Brethren camp at Lagro, Indiana.  The program grew rapidly.  By July there were 3,738 men in CPS: 1,572 in 13 Mennonite camps, 1,035 in 12 Friends camps, 1,048 in 10 Brethren camps.  Two Catholic camps had 68 men. 

CPS Camp # 3, Patapsco, Planting Trees, Swarthmore College Peace Collection

When CPS ended in April 1947, 12,000 men had served in its ranks.  They had worked in 150 camps, units and programs and had logged more than eight million man-days of work.  During the first year, 1941-1942, the men served principally in Soil Conservation and U.S. Forest Service work building roads, fighting forest fires, constructing dams, planting trees, building contour strips on farms.  Most of it was hand, menial, tedious labor with limited articulation of this as being “work of national importance” or having environmental purpose.  Base camps were invariably located in isolated rural areas in former Civilian Conservation Corps barracks.

A year after the start of CPS other service opportunities broadened: Public Health Service projects in Florida building privies, followed by the first work in state mental hospitals at Williamsburg and Staunton, Virginia and Sykesville, Maryland.  Soon three projects opened in health and rural development with the Puerto Rican Reconstruction Agency.

One out of every six man-days worked by CPS men was in soil conservation activity.  Twenty-three large camps engaged in programs of the Soil Conservation Service. The men constructed 49 sizable dams, 164 reservoirs and 200 smaller dams.  They sodded one and a half million square yards of gullies and slopes, dug 1200 miles of ditches, 2,970 miles of contour furrows and built 2,670 water control structures for irrigation.

The prevention and fighting of forest fires occupied nearly one-fourth of all CPS man-days.  CPS operated 31 Forest Service camps.  Most men worked out of base camps. In the west men were often dispersed to remote “spike camps.”  In addition to fire prevention, work included building trails and fire roads, clearing underbrush, planting trees.  Few assignments carried a greater aura of mystique and adventure than Smoke Jumping. At a camp at Missoula, Montana, highly trained crews of CPSers parachuted into rugged country to put out fires.  By the end of the war 240 men served as Smoke Jumpers.

At a camp in Terry, Montana men served in a project of the Farm Security Administration building irrigation dams, canals and ditches, leveling land with bulldozers and building new farmsteads.  Men at Hill City, South Dakota built with power equipment Deerfield Dam, an earthen dam 137 feet high to supply water to Rapid City and irrigate 12,000 acres of farmland.  Additional agriculture-related programs opened in research stations, dairy testing and artificial insemination programs.  No aspect of the CPS farm program created greater controversy than the Selective Service decision to use CPS men in emergency farm labor (often publicized locally as “war work”) within a 25 mile radius of a CPS camp.  Most men participated reluctantly; some refused to cooperate. 

Among CPSers, confined to base camps, developed a ground swell of concern to be engaged in work of social welfare.  Selective Service resisted, fearing adverse public opinion.  In mental hospitals the need for attendants became overwhelming.  Hospital staffs were decimated by the exodus of employees to better paying war jobs.  After the opening in June 1942 of the first CPS units in mental hospitals, the program grew rapidly.  Eventually CPS men served in 41 mental hospitals in 20 states.  More than 2,000 men worked in the program at its height—3,000 in all.  Most CPSers worked as ward attendants.  The work was hard and long; most men logged at least 72 hours per week.  In some wards an attendant was responsible for 100 or more patients—a nearly impossible task to manage successfully.  CPS men, with few exceptions, provided a much welcomed improvement in the care to the mentally ill.

CPS Camp # 51, Western State Hospital, Digital image from the Center on Conscience and War Records (DG 025), Swarthmore College Peace Collection

One of the most important outcomes of the mental hospital CPS work was a movement called the Mental Health Hygiene Program which later became the National Mental Health Foundation.  The impetus for this came out of the Friends unit at Byberry Hospital in Philadelphia.  A team of four CPS men, who were given detached service status, launched a program to develop long range programs of mental health reform.  They published The Attendant, which became a professional journal, The Psychiatric Aide.  A survey of conditions in mental hospitals led to the publication of Out of Sight—Out of Mind.  Following the war, spurred by the CPS experience, Mennonites developed a number of small therapeutic communities for the mentally ill.  Many see this wartime work of CPS men as contributing significantly to a revolution in the care of the mentally ill.

Among the most challenging assignments for CPS men were the guinea pig experiments under the Office of Scientific Research or under the Surgeon General’s Office.  Harvard Medical School used CPS men in research of an inexpensive control for typhus.  Units of CPS men were engaged at Yale University in experiments related to the control of infectious hepatitis.  More than 100 CPSers were guinea pigs in studies of pneumonia and the common cold (delete--studies which proved that they were caused by a virus and not by bacteria).  CPS men were subjects in studies of malaria at six universities. Nearly 300 guinea pigs were tested in nutritional studies.  The most dramatic were the “starvation experiments” at the University of Minnesota.

CPS men were resourceful in developing a wide variety of educational and recreational programs in base camps and units. CPS men served as educational directors.  All camps had libraries, some with sizeable collections.  Most camps published newspapers, some with circulations exceeding a thousand.  Special schools were organized in psychiatry and mental health, farm and community, art and music.  Most numerous were study programs in relief and reconstruction.

The program of Civilian Public Service was staffed not only by CPS men but by scores of women who were not drafted: matrons, nurses and dietitians in camps, office workers at agency headquarters in Akron, Pennsylvania (MCC), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (AFSC), Elgin, Illinois (BSC) and Washington, D.C. (NSBRO).  Added to these were the supporting presence of hundreds of wives and girl friends employed by hospitals where CPS men served.

CPS Camp # 47, Skykesville Maryland, Digital Image Brethren Historical Library and Archives. All Rights Reserved


From the beginning of the program, CPS lived in hope of overseas service as “a moral equivalent to war.”  Expectations ran high in 1943 when Selective Service approved a Friends-managed relief unit of 70 to serve with the British Friends Ambulance Service in West China engaged in relief and reconstruction work.  In the summer of 1943 three relief training units with 250 enrolled sprang into operation. An advance team of seven CPS men was en route to China when in June the Starnes Amendment, a rider to an appropriation bill, banned all overseas service for CPS men.  At war’s end, scores of CPS men volunteered to serve with the AFSC, BSC, MCC and other private agencies in work of relief and reconstruction in war devastated areas of Europe and Asia.

Ziegler and Miller

Robert Ziegler in Paris, France 1945. From left to right: Robert Ziegler, Orie O. Miller. IX-13-2-3 Box 2 Folder 3, photo 1342. Mennonite church USA Archives-Goshen. goshen, Indiana

General Lewis Hershey called CPS an “experiment in democracy to find out whether our democracy is big enough to preserve minority rights in a time of national emergency.” Others have called it “the great compromise.” Still others have accepted CPS as an imperfect partnership, but the best alternative service program for COs that could be negotiated under then hostile circumstances.  In any event, the Civilian Public Service narrative is full of many lessons on state-church relations.  It drew the Peace Churches and other faith groups into a variety of new collaborative relationships.  It is strewn with stories of lost opportunities. CPS, also, yielded unexpected results: helping to initiate a movement of mental health reform, empowering a new generation of leaders in church and society, energizing private agencies in global relief and development, giving voice to a minority who advocated peace and reconciliation amidst a devastating global war.   

An essay based on condensing and editing Albert N. Keim’s illustrated history of Civilian Public Service, The CPS Story (Good Books, 1990)


Robert Kreider

Historian, Assistant Director of CPS Camp No. 5, member of the aborted China Unit and coordinator of mental health units administered by the Mennonite Central Committee.

September 7, 2010